Derek W. Logue
February 9, 2009, ADDENDUM 8/30/09
Since its inception, the public registry for sex offenders [a.k.a., “Megan’s Law] has become a mainstay in our society.
Proponents of this law claim many benefits, such as the availability of sex offender information to make informed
decisions, promoting public safety, and lowering recidivism by increased vigilance. In 2003 even the US Supreme Court
claimed registries were constitutional. However, in light of new evidence of both the overall ineffectiveness and the
negative consequences of the registries, including propagating myths, social ostracism, barriers to rehabilitation, and
even vigilantism, the notion of public registries should be revisited, including in court. (For the sake of brevity, since
community notification is always coupled with the public registry, all references to the registry should be assumed to
apply to community notification as well).
A Very Concise History of Megan’s Law
“If I had known that there was a pedophile living on our street, my daughter would be alive today.” – Maureen Kanka
The concept of a public registry was founded on the “If Only” principle – The rationale is “If only we had known a sex
offender was living down the street, this tragedy would not have happened." In 1994, ninety-four days after the murder
of 7 year old Megan Kanka, New Jersey passed the first public registry law (the Jacob Wetterling Act, the federal
registry, was not public). Two years later, in 1996, President Clinton signed the National public registry into law, which
also included community notification . At first, there was a lot of resistance to these laws on the basis of constitutional
rights, but today those sentiments have changed greatly; today people claim it is not enough and demand more
restrictive laws . Some lower courts had ruled the public registries indeed violate constitutional rights  ; however,
the US Supreme Court upheld the public registry in Smith v. Doe in a 6-3 decision, claiming the registry was regulatory
and not punitive, and thus does not violate ex post facto. The three dissenters rightfully noted the registry is indeed
punitive . In the same year, the US Supreme Court also ruled that registries do not violate procedural due process,
but did not rule on substantive due process .
The 2003 rulings of the US Supreme Court have justified increased restrictions of every kind, and the High Court has
only made one ruling since then against any measure aimed at sex offenders, the 2008 Kennedy v. Louisiana decision,
which banned the death penalty for child rape where no murder was involved . The Kennedy decision was heavily
criticized by both Barack Obama and John McCain, who were both running for President at the time , and a failed
move to overturn the law was pushed by 85 House Republicans and the governors of Missouri and Louisiana .
Impact and Consequences of Megan’s Law
Proponents of Megan’s Law have long argued the law as an effective tool to protect themselves from convicted sex
offenders. However, research has discovered a myriad of problems with the law itself which counter any claims of
effectiveness of the law. Below are some of the major problems with registry laws.
It comes as little surprise registry laws have helped perpetuate many of the myths the general public believes about
those who commit sexual offenses, including stranger-danger, high recidivism rates of sex offenders, the view everyone
on the registry are of equally high risk, and believe treatment is ineffective for reducing recidivism, which of course, fuels
the public perceptions registries are needed . Despite our best efforts to counter the myths , a visit to any blog,
forum, or chatroom where sex offender laws are being discussed will provide evidence that the majority of individuals still
hold fast to these beliefs.
Predator/ Moral Panic:
Predator Panic the result of disproportionate media sensationalism and political crusading over the very rare occurrence
of brutal sex crimes in this country . Studies have shown that the media over-reported sex crimes up to 14 times the
level of actual incidence, and present their reports in ways that inspire more fear of sex crimes than any other crime
including homicide . Predator panic has become so widespread it has even impacted the view that all men, not just
those on the registries, are potential predators. Fear of accusations is so deep, businesses such as airlines and
coaches at school have instituted policies to never allow men alone with a child . As a consequence, fewer men are
working or volunteering at child-oriented businesses or even to stop to help a distressed child at the mall, because, as
one man put it, “Being male, I am guilty till proven innocent .” Predator panic can even result in loss of property
values of homes around the residence of a registrant by an average of four percent . Thus, evidence Megan’s Law
and Predator Panic continually feed off each other has become more evident over the years.
As of Sept. 2007, eAdvocate lists 112 murdered individuals known to have been murdered due to sex crime accusations
or convictions . The most notorious acts against registrants were the double murders in Washington in September
2005 and the double murders in Maine in April 2006; both murders were linked directly to their listings on the online
registry . In addition to murder, a significant number of registrants, as well as loved ones of the registrant, have
experienced different forms of vigilantism. “Nearly half of the offenders reported experiencing threats, property damage,
or physical assault as a result of public disclosure .” In addition, almost half of people living with the registrant
reported being threatened or harassed by neighbors, 27% had their property damaged, and 7% said they were
physically assaulted by someone as a result of notification . Furthermore, strong evidence has shown that the
information typically contained on the registries compel readers to behave in a “less than responsible” manner .
May Deter Reporting of Sex Crimes:
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 6.7% of the victims under age 18 and 34.4% of the victims over 18
were attacked by strangers , so the shaming effect of the registry is believed to deter some victims who know his or
her offender from reporting the crime . Registries may lead to the identification of the victim, and may not report the
crime because of the impact on the family .
Creates Barriers to Rehabilitation and Reintegration:
“Although these laws were passed as a means to decrease recidivism and promote public safety, the resulting
stigmatization of sex offenders is likely to result in disruption of their relationships, loss of or difficulties finding jobs,
difficulties finding housing, and decreased psychological well-being, all factors that could increase their risk of recidivism
.” Researchers generally agree that stability in post-release life of the former offender greatly impacts recidivism,
and by creating such a malevolent environment towards those on the registry, registries interfere with successful
reintegration and rehabilitation. Indeed, registrants have report stress, isolation, disruption to social relationships, fear
for one’s safety, shame and embarrassment, and hopelessness. Furthermore, as the result of these barriers, registrants
are far more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods with higher crime rates, placing even more barriers to the
rehabilitation process . At the core of this argument is the impact of the “labeling effect,” more specifically,
“disintegrative shaming,” the criminological theory in which a former offender is prevented from reintegrating and
reconnecting to society and may in response commit subsequent offenses . The detrimental impact can be greater
among those socially stigmatized as sexual deviants at an earlier age, as youth tend to be more impressionable and
reactive to the negative effects of these laws . The Adam Walsh Act allows youth as young as age 14 to be listed on
the public registries.
Effectiveness of Megan’s Law Questioned
Until recently, there has been little in the way of research on the impact of sex offender registries on the prevention of
sex crimes. Some early studies failed to find any significant declines in re-arrest rates for both sex specific and in crimes
in general among registrants. A 2006 study on the registries found that the laws were created more on
“assumptions” than on factual information. The study found no evidence Megan’s Law reduces recidivism, use registries
to find other offenders to be partners in crime, gives a false sense of security, promotes myths about the nature of sex
crimes, and possibly deter intra-familial offenses from being reported. Furthermore, vigilantism against registrants was
highly under-reported and under-recorded .
Two studies released at the beginning of 2009 reinforce the earlier findings of the impact of Megan’s Law.
New Jersey Study—“Megan’s Law: Assessing the Practical and Monetary Efficacy  ”
The first study making considerable headlines is the New Jersey study released to the public around the first of
February, 2009. This study failed to link Megan’s Law with reducing sex crime rates, as crime trends were already on the
decline when Megan’s Law took effect, and the decline could possibly be attributed to other cultural trends. The study
also failed to find any impact on reducing sex crimes among convicted offenders or even first time offenders, nor in
reducing the number of victims involved in sexual offenses. Costs associated with the initial implementation as well as
ongoing expenditures continue to grow over time. Start up costs totaled $555,565 and current costs (in 2007) totaled
approximately 3.9 million dollars for the responding counties. Given the lack of demonstrated effect of Megan’s Law on
sexual offenses, the growing costs may not be justifiable.
It is interesting to note that Maureen Kanka was reported by reliable sources to have tried to have the research article
suppressed , so it came as no surprise when she criticized the study and made the claim Megan’s Law is not
intended to change the behavior of sex criminals .
New York Study—“Does a Watched Pot Boil? A Time-Series Analysis of New York State’s Sex Offender Registration
and Notification Law 
Perhaps a more damning study was recently published by the American Psychological Association in November 2008. In
the introduction to the study, the researchers noted the media sensationalizes sex crime stories in more fearful ways
than any other crime types, and the myths that perpetuate the support of such laws. It also noted a 2005 study that
found out of 10 states, six reported no change in sex crime rates, three reported decreases, and one reported a sharp
The New York Study found no changes in the sex crime rates of either convicted sex offenders or first time offenders
before or after registry laws were passed in New York. Furthermore the study found 95.9% of rape arrests and 94.1% of
child molestation arrests were of first time offenders, meaning people not on the registry . The study concludes
more resources should be used on prevention programs and not to rely on this ineffective measure which may
discourage reporting abuse among those the victim knows, as well as giving people a false sense of security.
Registries “Not Intended to Reduce Recidivism,” Intent is “Increase Awareness:"
In response to the New Jersey study debunking the deterrent effects of Megan’s Law, Maureen Kanka claimed the intent
was not to “alter the behavior of sex offenders,” but to “provide an awareness to the public .” Many articles cast
doubt on the efficacy of that argument as well. In a 2005 Gallup Poll taken just after the Jessica Lunsford tragedy hit the
media, only 38% of individuals were even aware their state even maintains a registry. Even though 94% of those polled
favored registries, only 23% have ever checked the registry, while 34% stated concerns over harassment and
vigilantism as a result of the registry . When the state of Florida proposed cutting e-mail notification alerts in 2008
due to budget cuts, it was noted only 44,000 of the state’s 16 million residents (or 0.275%) signed up for the program
, or roughly one signee per registrant. If statistically 40% of the 49,000 Florida registrants experienced harassment
or vigilantism, then it can be safely assumed a correlation between the email alert program and vigilantism exists.
Revisiting Smith v. Doe
The gist of Smith v. Doe was the weighing of public safety over individual rights coupled with the declaration that sex
offenders have high recidivism rates, thus posing an imminent threat to society as a whole: “The risk or recidivism posed
by sex offenders is ‘frightening and high ’.” However, in making this assumption, the US Supreme Court erred by
relying on a myth to justify upholding this law . In addition, in light of research on the negative consequences of the
laws after the Smith v. Doe case, the argument the laws are not punitive cannot hold up to the assertion that the severe
negative consequences of the laws indeed make them punitive by nature. Also, the lack of effectiveness of the laws
counters any appeal to legitimate governmental interest of the registries .
There have been a number of lower court rulings since the Smith v. Doe case to warrant a review of the landmark ruling.
Lower court rulings have determined that the negative effects of these laws are “grave” and pose significant barriers to
reintegration and rehabilitation, and puts registrants at high risk for vigilantism . Though legislatures claim the intent
of the law is not to punish the offender, courts have determined the effects of the laws deemed the laws to be punitive
, and determined the registration of certain offenders violated ex post facto . In addition, provisions of the
registry under the Adam Walsh Act relating to offenders moving to other states have been declared unconstitutional and
an encroachment of federal control over the states . In regards to juvenile offenders, a court has ruled against
harsh provisions treating juvenile offenders of certain crimes register as adult sex offenders violates the equal
protection clause of the 14th Amendment .
Sex offender registries are very popular with the public, at least at first glance. However, there have been a number of
unintentional and negative consequences of the law, including perpetuating sex offender stereotypes and myths,
promoting moral or “predator panic,” promoting vigilantism, deters reporting of certain sex crimes, and creates barriers
to successful reintegration and rehabilitation. To date, no study has found evidence Megan’s Law acts as a deterrent,
and may even be counterproductive to reducing criminal sexual behavior. With that revelation, proponents of the law
have shifted from emphasizing the deterrent effect to the information benefit. However, stats show even that argument is
difficult to justify. Furthermore, the low number of individuals regularly visiting registries coupled with a high incidence of
vigilantism against registrants and their loved ones suggest a very strong correlation between registry use and vigilante
violence and harassment. Finally, the US Supreme Court had erred in the Smith v. Doe decision, largely as a result of
myth reliance and lack of proof to the punitive nature of the laws. However, after years of the existence of these laws,
the negative and punitive consequences have become evident through research and the courts, and a stronger case
for reversing the old Smith v. Doe decision can be made.
ADDENDUM 8/30/09: New Study questions motivations for people to check the registries!
Sex Offender Registries: Curiosity, not Caution, as a Motivation for Viewing
Sex-offender registries allow citizens to identify and monitor sex-offenders living in their communities yet little research
exists regarding their usefulness. This research sought to identify participants’ attitudes toward sex-offenders and
motives for accessing registries. Attitudes were assessed using Altemeyer's Right Wing Authoritarianism scale and an
original scale developed to assess attitudes regarding sex-offenders and the registry. Twenty-nine percent of
participants reported having viewed a registry and mostly did so out of curiosity rather than out of fear or concern for
safety. Authoritarians were found to be more favorable toward sex-offender registries and had a greater belief in their
Jones, C. A. and Harrington, E. , 2008-03-05 "Sex Offender Registries: Curiosity, not Caution, as a Motivation for
Viewing" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychology - Law Society, Hyatt Regency Jacksonville
Riverfront, Jacksonville, FL <Not Available>. 2009-05-23 from http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p229363_index.html
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